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The SBID Education Council puts effective design at the core of the learning process. With the aim of raising awareness in showing how evidence-based interior design decisions can transform learning experiences, member of the Education Council, Dr Pamela Woolner shares her views on learning environments. Pamela is the Degree Programme Director for EdD at Newcastle University and has carried out extensive research which centres on understanding and developing the physical learning environment.

The physical environment makes a difference to education – a setting will facilitate some teaching, learning and social practices while hindering others.  Therefore, the best results occur when physical space and material resources are aligned with pedagogical intentions.  It also means that space can be a powerful driver of educational change, but only if developed purposefully and in co-ordination with changes to other elements, such as curriculum, relationships and practices.

These ideas apply across a school’s premises, but furniture, furnishings and interior design form an interesting part of the overall environment. It is often possible to change the internal organisation and appearance of a school relatively cheaply and quickly, and there are considerable possibilities for involving school users, staff and students, in the process of planning and designing new spaces. So it is unfortunate that school interiors can be overlooked, particularly during times of big school building programmes, such as we have seen in recent years in the UK, Australia and elsewhere in the world. As an example of the potential power of interior design, consider the example of acoustics. Structural decisions, but also choices of furnishings and finishes, can reduce unhelpful reverberation and noise leakage between areas.  This can be vital in enabling teacher decisions to drive learning practices, balancing activity and stillness, group work and individual projects.  In contrast, in many schools, unsuitable environments, both poorly thought-out open space and enclosed rooms with thin walls, cause students and teachers to adapt their behaviour to avoid disturbing other people.

SBID Education Council member, Dr Pamela Woolner image for Education Design feature on SBID interior design blog

I’ve recently written about how two schools in the north east of England used their environments to support developments in teaching and learning to enrich student experiences and improve outcomes.  A primary school, which we’ve referred to as Southside, got involved with a skills and enquiry programme, Open Futures.  The intention was to change teaching and learning through four integrated strands of curriculum development centred on cooking, gardening, filming and philosophy for children.  Through a very different process, our other example school, Town End Academy, set out to develop an enquiry-based, cross-curricular approach to learning, which is challenging within the English secondary school climate of individualised, subject based learning and high stakes tests.

SBID Education Council member, Dr Pamela Woolner image for Education Design feature on SBID interior design blogSouthside

At Southside, involvement in Open Futures acted as an immediate catalyst for changes that the school had been hoping to make in curriculum content, teaching approaches and use of school space.  Cooking and growing spaces were developed, as was a base for the film strand, staff went on training courses for the individual strands, while timetables and budgets were adapted to accommodate and resource the programme.  These initial changes helped to support innovation, but it was subsequent developments that enabled the change to be sustained and, we judged, start to become ‘institutionalised’.  Less tangible, but important, changes to educational practices and values were underpinned by more self-evident innovation across the curriculum, staff training and the school environment, inside and out.  Finding school space for Open Futures, from the usual noticeboards to the ‘wonder tree’ in the corridor, which children across the school could use to ask questions and offer answers, demonstrated that the programme was valued and encouraged further engagement.

Town End Academy

At Town End, initial innovations centred on staff development and timetabling to support cross-curricular, enquiry-based learning.  However, teachers were also encouraged to rearrange the furniture in the classrooms to facilitate the necessary student collaboration.  Circular tables were put into some rooms, while, in others, desks were rearranged so that students could sit facing each other.  Further developments into learning through extended collaborative ‘projects’ made more demands on school indoor space, including space to research and develop project ideas, as well as areas for end of project exhibitions and displays.  Tending to work against the cross-curricular intentions was the school interior plan with its subject-specific offices that teachers use for planning, but also during breaks and lunchtimes.

Across both these schools, it’s clear to see that educational change is linked to the physical environment.  Existing space can either support or constrain change, with redesign offering a usefully visual and tangible focus for the development of new practices.  Furnishings, equipment and areas within these schools were used to support initial innovation, then embed the changes and enable ongoing development.

SBID Education Council member, Dr Pamela Woolner feature on SBID interior design blog

Dr Pamela Woolner
Degree Programme Director for EdD at Newcastle University

Click here to find out more about the SBID Education Council

For more information on these schools, discussion of the challenges of whole school change and ideas about using school space to entrench innovation, click here to read the free access article.

Full reference: Woolner P, Thomas U, Tiplady L. (2018) Structural change from physical foundations: The role of the environment in enacting school change. Journal of Educational Change, 19(2), 223-242.


The SBID Education Council is hosting an event on the Tuesday 26th June to discuss how improving wellness in learning environments can improve attainment. Sponsored by Interface and Orangebox, The event is open to interior designers and architects, but teachers and educational decision makers are also welcome to attend.

Two talks will be held at 11.00am and 12.10pm by Jim Taylor, Head of Design and Wellbeing at Orangebox and Oliver Heath, Interface Partner and Biophilic Design Expert.


Design Wellness interior design event invitation

Wireless Well Learning 

11.00am – Jim Taylour

Jim trained as a furniture designer and ergonomist, working in the furniture industry for 30 years both in a specialised occupational health capacity and in mainstream workplace design and research. He heads up Design at the Orangebox UK based manufacturing centre in South Wales and also chairs the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors special interest group on children’s ergonomics to represent the industry furniture standards across Europe through the British Standards Institute.

His recent publications include ‘Mobile Generations’ exploring Agile Smartworking and the emerging health and productivity challenges affecting the workplace. As a result of the findings an initiative developed by Jim is ‘wireless well working’, a workplace strategic design tool to help organisations shape their environments to support their own wellbeing and collaborative initiatives. Jim will talk to us about his recommendations and basic rules for selecting furniture for classroom environments to improve the quality of interior design in education.


Learning from Nature: Biophilic Educational Spaces

12.10pm – Oliver Heath

Oliver is a qualified Domestic Energy and Green Deal Assessor who founded an architectural and interior design practice, combining sustainability, consumer engagement and communications to inspire the uptake of future thinking in the built environment.

Biophilia (meaning love of nature) focuses on human’s innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings. Biophilic Design uses these ideas as principles to create a human centred approach that when applied improves many of the spaces that we live and work in today, with numerous benefits to our health and well-being.

Our built environment features a huge range of educational buildings, of all different scales and capacities: from small nurseries through to vast schools and university campuses – many of which resemble self-contained villages. However, what these buildings all have in common is that staff members and students inhabit them on a daily basis in order to teach and learn. Research has proven that our attention capacity (essential for our cognitive functioning) is restored when we come into contact with nature. Studies have demonstrated that Biophilic educational spaces have the ability to improve performance and the well-being of both staff members and students.


In the Volume 6 Issue 4 edition of eSociety, SBID spoked to ergonomics specialist Jim Taylour about his recommendations and basic rules for selecting furniture for classroom environments to improve the quality of interior design in education.

Education feature from eSociety interior design magazine

Here’s what Jim had to say about the current standards of classroom furnishings…

As an adult, have you ever been to a conference and felt restless because of the uncomfortable chairs, dined out where there’s minimum legroom and the acoustics prevent you from hearing your fellow diners properly, or sat on a sofa and thought how deep, low and ill-fitting the experience was, and how it impeded your concentration?

Now consider revisiting these scenarios on a daily basis for a period of 14-plus years and that’s beginning to paint a picture of the unintentionally hostile environments we expect children to survive and thrive within school.

Dimensional misfit between children and the equipment provided often causes poor posture, which in turn increases the risk of error, accidents, discomfort, loss of concentration and poor productivity.

At secondary school age, classroom physical activity drops year-by-year, concentration demands increase and the reliance on technology locks students into motionless postures – all on furniture that is non-adjustable and considered non-compliant in the contemporary office.

Education feature from eSociety interior design magazine

How to select furniture responsibly

Jim lays out his set of recommendations ranging from the selection of suitable chair sizes and the importance of providing variety and choice, to assessing the adjustability and flexibility of chairs to ensure they are fit for purpose and even considering unique features to suit specific tasks which will aid comfort and posture for the activity at hand. Find out what suggestions Jim made reading the rest of this feature!

Read this feature →

Jim Taylour, a member of SBID’s Education Council and Head of Design & Wellbeing at Orangebox 

Contact: [email protected]

This feature originally appeared in the Education section within Volume 6 Issue 4 of the official SBID interior design magazine, eSociety.

 Click here to read the full issue.


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